When it comes to national security we are usually favorably disposed towards the government’s position and efforts, for that is its prime responsibility. However a federal court’s order to Apple to facilitate turning up evidence on a terrorism case is just plain wrong and an ominous expansion of government power. What is troubling is less about Apple’s resistance on principle and more to do with what the court has directed the company to pursue.
It would be one thing if Apple had in its possession information that it was withholding or refusing to turn over. But Apple doesn’t have the information because their system does not allow even Apple to obtain user’s private information such as passwords, which is reassuring to customers concerned with their privacy. In other words, Apple itself does not have the keys to the box. What the court has done is breathtaking in its overreach. It has ordered Apple to do something to get the information, to come up with a way to crack the system which is designed to be nearly impossible to break. It is demanding that Apple come up with a way to defeat its own safeguards which hitherto have not been breached.
There is no certainty that this is even possible. But if it is many arguments have been put forward as to why the order should be resisted. First it would destroy the promise of security that customers expect, second it effectively enable the government to penetrate the privacy of anyone at any time, third if a “back door” into the system is found hackers will soon get access, and fourth, since Apple sells more phones internationally than in the US, other governments, many with less respect for human rights than others, will demand the same prerogative.
But most importantly and most troubling is the state’s order that Apple create something that does not exist now. If the government can tell Apple that you must do X because we need Y then the it effectively empowers the state to do the same with any entity or person at any time. For once it is established that the government can compel anyone to take certain actions they have not done before, with this effort coming at their own expense, there is no limit to what it could demand. If the FBI wants this information they should find a way themselves, for this is not something relatively benign like metadata, but is instead a serious abuse of power.
No sane person has any sympathy with terrorists, who must be rigorously pursued by any necessary means. If Apple had the requested information it would be right to order that they turn it over. But they don’t. It is completely unreasonable to force them to go find something they do not possess and that they might or might not be able to discover. The government has more than enough evidence to make this particular case (the massacre of 14 people in San Bernadino). The only possible value for what it is asking is to find out if anyone else is involved, which is a laudable goal, but can be discovered in other ways.
If this goes forward we will not be any safer or more secure, and we will have lost a significant amount of freedom. So it is not even privacy that we ought to be concerned about so much as the ridiculous notion that the government in seeking information no one possesses can force any of us to go find it for them. All lovers of freedom should support Apple in this matter.